Interview by Pegi Eyers
You are best known for work in Druidry, but you are now concentrating on another project. How did your work in both Druidry and the repatriation of ancient human remains lead to your interest in the green burial movement, and the opening of Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground and Nature Preserve?
Emma Restall Orr
Sun Rising is an expression of the practical ethics I feel are fundamental to my spirituality, my religion, to my understanding of both Druidry and animism. It can take a lifetime to grasp and hone our ethics, and to work out just how those ethics do indeed play out in every decision that we make, but if we don't make every effort to walk our talk, we are effectively without ethics: our spiritual beliefs are, literally, valueless.
When my fourteen years of full-time motherhood drew to a close, I needed to forge the next step of my life, and the challenge I set myself was to create a project that was as close to 100% ethical as is possible within the heart of our Western culture. This meant creating a viable business that offered something essential, that left behind more of value than it consumed, that was both environmentally and socially sound. Sun Rising is that project. By providing a simple funeral service, I offer families and individuals an affordable, beautiful and very personal alternative to the funeral industry, which is all too often a profiteering racket without genuine care. In our sixteen acres, we are creating a nature reserve within which people can be buried in peace and serenity, in wildflower meadows or with a tree planted on the gravfe. Such a place of peace allows many the courage to die with grace, releasing themselves into its tranquillity. It is a profoundly healing place.
The landscape here has a great deal of history — Saxon, Roman and older. Being in such serenity, one can feel the ancestors, one can almost hear the songs of our people in the breeze, feeling ourselves walking upon their paths, watching the sun setting just as they did for millennia. It is a place where we can lose the overlays of chronology, and feel utterly connected within the timeless unity of nature in itself.
Of course there are many ways of walking our talk; that a burial ground was my choice is perhaps simply an expression of my Plutonic soul. I feel comfortable amidst trauma where others are not, I am familiar with pain and death. I am utterly incompetent at small talk, but I can sit with the dying for days and can work with individuals shattered by grief. It is an important part of growing into and through our human "self to understand just what, who, how we are as individuals, and to utilize our particular qualities to the best of our abilities. This is how we make our ancestors proud, and offer something to our descendants that is of real value.
What a beautiful affirmation of how being connected to nature allows for the overlay of past and present. Sun Rising is unusual in that it is both a burial ground and a nature reserve — how did this green vision come to be?
Emma Restall Orr
Yes, the overlay of past and present, and indeed future potential, is fascinating to me. Searching for communion with deity as and within nature, in part what I am striving to understanding is what nature is in itself, in other words, not through the filters and veils of our human and individual perception. My explorations, in line with various other mystics, philosophers and seekers, is that time is a construct of that perception, and not inherent within nature as we perceive it. A religious practice based on such a belief inspires us to work in ways that integrate past, present and future.
With respect to Sun Rising, there was both spiritual vision and very practical elements that guided us to create a site that was both burial ground and nature reserve. Practically speaking, we believe that in a century, a well-established nature reserve is likely to be an exceedingly precious haven within an overpopulated and overdeveloped landscape. We have hares breeding, lapwings nesting, owls and orchids on our ever- growing species list, which is wonderful to witness.
Spiritually, our vision is entirely commonsensical: nature heals. Whether we are facing our own death, coping with a loved one's immanent dying, stupefied with the shock of their death, or standing in the storms and floodwaters of grief, the song of the skylark lifts something within us. The dance of butterflies over wildflower meadow offers a moment's relief. The breaking open of soft green leaf buds reminds us that life renews itself even after the harshest of winters. I find an immeasurable strength in nature.
Can you speak about the popularity of the green burial movement in the UK and how Sun Rising fits into this movement?
Emma Restall Orr
The green burial movement began in Britain almost twenty years ago, and there are now over fifty dedicated natural burial grounds. A natural burial ground offers a beauty that attunes with folk who tend their gardens and watch the birds, who run in the hills and wander the woodlands. It is also good for people who want the absolute simplicity of a good farewell. At a natural burial ground, you can create an exquisitely beautiful funeral for very little expense, with no funeral directors, no hearse, no pretension, just the family and the bird-song, giving thanks and saying goodbye.
Can you describe the natural means and methods that are associated with green burials?
Emma Restall Orr
First of all, we encourage burial, not cremation. Crematoria use massive amounts of fossil fuels every day to incinerate our dead. Whatever your religious tradition, there is no ethical foundation for using those resources so wastefully.
We also encourage the use of ethically-made coffins and shrouds. Probably the best we offer is a woven willow coffin made from English-grown willow. These coffins are not within everyone's price range (around $1000), so we have less expensive alternatives as well. The latter are wonderful for creative families to personalize: grandchildren paint on them, families and friends write messages and prayers all over them.
Of course, we don't require that a coffin at all: the eco-purist can be buried in an organic hemp shroud, sheet or woollen blanket. What we don't allow is chipboard wood-veneer coffins, plastic linings or handles, coffins that can cost many thousands of dollars. Furthermore, we don't permit the burial of embalmed bodies: there is no good reason to embalm a loved one, other than to line the pockets of the funeral directors.
Burial — as opposed to cremation — recaptures the carbon stored in our body. If we bury without embalming in simple, ethically-made coffins, we are making much less of a damaging impact on the earth with our death.
What has been most rewarding for you, as you attend to the crossing-over process?
Emma Restall Orr
Perhaps the most important is the reward of knowing that we have been of service. It is an extraordinary honor to accompany someone through the last period of their living, facilitating the peaceful release that allows for what we might call a "good death." What I have gained for myself is harder to express, but it has something to do with the recognition of mortality, and the need to live consciously, moment-by-moment. I know more than ever that it is not worth arguing or losing relationships with people I value, because sometimes fate does not allow us the time to mend those ruptures. It is worth working hard to solve our inner conflicts and find ways to enjoy life, because there is no point in struggling so that "one day we'll be okay," when that day may never come.
How can we incorporate the awareness of mortality into our spiritual practice?
Emma Restall Orr
It is important to allow death to be a part of our lives. The death of a loved one is far more traumatic in families and communities where death is kept away from the hearth and home and not spoken of at all. Losing someone in such a situation means that those involved suddenly find themselves in wholly unfamiliar territory, and are prone to needing others to step in and take control. As a result, they are likely to feel disempowered by their experience, and grieving process becomes far harder than it need be.
How do we allow death to be a more comfortable part of our lives? Talking about the ancestors is important, beginning with parents or grandparents. Keeping alive the memories and teachings we shared and gained from being a part of their lives allows us to keep open the possibility of talking about their death, how we miss them and grieve for them. Being aware of the ancestors whose lives, whose skills and needs shaped the landscape around us, is another way of remembering the ancestors.
At Samhain in my family, we remember the dead, and also think of our own death. We review our Wills and update information that will aid those who have to tidy up our lives should we die during the coming year. We consciously think about our own dying.
There are many ways that we can more directly engage with the energies of death and release. There are many gods who embody the processes of dying, of death, of existence beyond death, and of the dead. There are named gods from various pantheons and forces and beings whose presence we may feel but whose names we may never know. Working with these gods can be helpful. But to be honest, there are not many who need to have such a close connection with death.
What do you believe about life after death?
Emma Restall Orr
Over a quarter-century, I've been in conversation with people of many different traditions: learning, seeking deity, engaging in ritual, meditation and visioning and working with death. Over that time I have become increasingly uncomfortable with metaphysical dualism: the idea that mind and matter are different sorts of stuff, and that the soul/ spirit resides in the body and that at death that mind (soul) flies free to be elsewhere.
This idea is deeply embedded in modern materialism, in which the soul or mind is dismissed as an illusion, a mere epiphenemenon of the brain. Metaphysical dualism is an extension of the principles of anthropocentric dualism, a system that devalues nonhuman nature.
I do not believe in the perpetual existence of the soul in any way that perceives "soul" as a coherent individual entity that is separable from matter. I see each apparently-separate form as integral to the whole, from the tiniest particles of being to the totality of the universe. All of it is in the perpetual process of cohering into emergence, and dissolving back into formlessness, within the minded wholeness of nature. On that basis, there is a cycling within the vast becoming of nature, but it is not one we can call "reincarnation of the soul."
Your recent book The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature is focused on a contemporary resurgence of an animist worldview. How can this transformative perspective be disseminated?
Emma Restall Orr
The animist perceives subjects where the non-animist perceives merely objects. I call myself a radical animist: to me, the very category of "thing" is questionable. Since consumer culture is based upon the exploitation of things, animism poses a serious challenge to it.
If every part of nature is populated by subjects, each of which has a right to thrive no more or less than we ourselves do, how do we survive? Every decision we make must be made with an awareness of the impact we have on those around us, out of respect for the other's right to exist and thrive.
The answer lies in the dissemination of peaceful inspiration. I have found that I am more likely to get someone's attention, and change their attitude towards nature if they can feel my soul as peaceful. Finding that peace — through the dissolution of self in natural integration — is the core of my spiritual practice.
Thank you so much Emma, it has been indeed a pleasure. The Ancestors must be very proud of you!
Sun Rising Natural Burial Ground and Nature Reserve, Tysoe U.K. (near Stratford upon Avon) http://sunrisingburialground.co.uk
This interview originally appeared in Witches and Pagans Magazine #28.
Pegi Eyers is the author of "Ancient Spirit Rising: Reclaiming Your Roots & Restoring Earth Community," an award-winning book that explores strategies for intercultural competency, healing our relationships with Turtle Island First Nations, decolonization, recovering an ecocentric worldview, rewilding, creating a sustainable future and reclaiming peaceful co-existence in Earth Community.
Stone Circle Press